By Ray Petersen — Literature is a culture, it encourages thought, and debate, and the development of knowledge on a million different levels among people from all walks of life, of all ages, and all cultures. I had never realised, until recently, that food too, lends itself if not to the written word, then certainly conversation, to a much less formal extent. After all, an oft-quoted definition is, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, while wisdom is not adding it to a fruit salad.”
You know how it is too, that a chance conversation can set a train of thought in motion, don’t you? Well, a friend of mine, John, cooked a lovely lunch last week using some select meat cuts, fried green tomatoes from his own garden, mashed potato and parsnips, and honey drenched fresh salads. I’ve gotta tell you, I eat salads very sparingly, but this honey-flavoured offering was spectacular. There’s no way I’m now a confirmed salad eater, but …
Anyway, as I was commenting on the meal John explained that he’s always been something of a ‘foodie’ and explained that he has a couple of signature dishes I must try some time. “Mangoes Bananas over Chicken,” he said, and then paused. I waited. He repeated the name of the dish, and then he offered the slightly different pronunciation of “Man goes bananas over chicken.” It was a clever play on words, and I was much more wide awake when he offered his other specialty, “Black Thai Chicken,” which is of course, “Black Tie Chicken.” I’m guessing it’s a much more formal meal. You gotta smile!
So that led me to ponder, in my rare idle moments, about food and words. “In literature, as in food,” to paraphrase Maurois, “we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” The extreme diversity of meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans is always confusing, conflicting, and sometimes downright inconvenient. Leo Tolstoy wrote of the “immorality” of eating meat, and the “incomprehensibility of some art, to some people,” being the same as our inability to find pleasure in some foods.”
George Bernard Shaw who adored ‘fine food,’ wrote though that, “There is no love sincerer than that of food,” blithely adding “that is why the same tiger that eats you, loves you,” while the great Leonardo da Vinci too chose the path of a meat-free diet. Abu Ala Al Ma’ari, a vegan Syrian poet, a thousand years ago wrote of his abhorrence of meat eating while praising the restorative and medicinal qualities of food. In rebuttal, Homer Simpson asked, “If we’re not supposed to eat cows, why are they made of food?” And there, for many, is the conundrum of sustenance and vice, the very crux of food consumption and its philosophies.
Even cynics have a place in the realm of food, with one saying that he “refuses to be impressed by technology, until he can download food!” And, “if we aren’t meant to have midnight snacks, why is there a light in the fridge.” I’m not sure either, who the comedian was who said, “Throughout history there have been sacrifices to the different gods, of goats, cattle and even humans, but I don’t recall any potato, melon, cabbage or lettuce being sacrificed!
Alexandr Pushkin the noted Russian poet, was a noted duelist, lover and gourmet, and in this melancholic piece leaves scholars questioning which of those he refers to:
“I have outlasted all desire, my dreams and I have grown apart;
My grief alone is left entire, the gleamings of an empty heart.
The storms of ruthless dispensation have struck my flowery garland numb,
I live in lonely desolation and wonder when my end will come.
Thus on a naked tree-limb, blasted by tardy winter’s whistling chill,
A single leaf which has outlasted Its season will be trembling still.”
Regret over lost love, defeated foes, or an ill-prepared plate, Pushkin seductions were often ill-judged, but gastronomically, he knew his tastes. He dined every day at the Literaturnaya Cafe in St Petersburg, where an early advertisement proclaimed, “It is possible here to see the King of France, the Dauphin, and the Princesses……… the Kings of English (sic) and all notable ministers in perfect greatness, in dress, and with all attire at which they are in court.” When you see the likes of berry confiture, celery cream, crayfish oil and raspberry coulis on page one of the Russian/English menu, with still eleven more pages of menu to go, the gourmet seduction has begun.
I followed in Pushkin’s footsteps three years ago, and I couldn’t go past this beauty! “Marinated deer fillet, with baked apple and pear puree, served with spelt and pine cone jam.” Food doesn’t get much more tantalising than this! Now I understand why Pushkin and other Russian literary greats such as Dostoyevsky, Belinsky, Krilov and Chernyshevsky were frequent diners. It takes very little imagination to understand how their minds were sharpened, and their senses wooed, by these gastronomic sensations. After all, as Virginia Woolf wrote that “You cannot think well…… if you have not eaten well.”
And let’s talk, another day, about music and food, for, as Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on.”